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Snowflakes in Space

Exultant scientists receiving the first images of Jupiter’s largest moon from the Galileo spacecraft were “dumbfounded” by detailed pictures of an ice world where volcanoes belch snow…some areas look like they have been raked smooth, leaving neat rows of steep ridges.

“Imagine skiing down those slopes!” said Galileo team member Jim Head. “And it’s winter all the time! Ganymede is like a giant snowball in space.”—Los Angeles Times, July 27, 1996.

It’s the year 2056. Genetic breakthroughs have reversed the aging process, so you are as strong as you were at age 20, but with much more experience and knowledge. You have won the intermission drawing during the showing of Warren Miller V’s showing of White Winter Heat XXXIV at the local EnormoDome, and now you are a guest for the filming of Winter Magic XXII. You are strapped into a Nissan Pathfinder spaceship that is speeding through the solar system, skis locked securely to the outside rack, a point-of-view camera mounted to the roof to capture the dizzying shots of your vehicle rocketing through narrow passages in the asteroid belt.

OK, stop right there. This is ridiculous. It’s pure fantasy. There’s no way Warren will turn over complete control of his movies to anyone. Plus, Nike will own Nissan by then, and the odds of you winning anything at an intermission drawing are astronomical. Nevertheless, you gotta wonder what it would be like…

Not long after NASA released this photo, I picked up the phone and called Jim Head, just to shoot the breeze, much the way some of you like to call me, say, to find out what boots you should buy. Jim, I’m happy to report, was much more open to an unsolicited phone call from a weirdo he didn’t know than I’ll ever be.

The good news is this: Ganymede is riddled with steep, volcanic mountains that cap an underground ocean of frozen water. When forces reach critical mass, parts of this ocean are thrust upward (like lava, but ice). “It’s like liquid water coming out, but it freezes right away,” says Head. “It’s a couple hundred degrees below zero, you know.”

What covers these peaks is beautiful, sparkling, white powder.

“It’s pretty good powder,” says Head. “The question is just how much.”

The bad news about Ganymede is the vertical: The volcanoes are only 300 feet high. Damn. Even with gravity only one-seventh what it is on Earth, rendering all your turns in slow motion, that’s still not enough huck to get excited about.

So, Ganymede isn’t Nirvana, Mecca, or Valhalla. There are plenty of other moons, other frozen oceans, other off-world mountains. Olympus Mons, for example, rises 78,000 vertical feet above the surface of Mars.

And snow can come from surprising places. For example, in Lost Moon, the book about the Apollo 13 mission, James Lovell writes that after the well-documented explosion that rocked his ship, vapor was vented into the vacuum of space, turning immediately into a small cloud of snowflakes. Although it’s likely the snowflakes were captured by the gravity of either Earth or the moon, it’s conceivable that they’re still out there, floating, glittering in the sun against the infinite blackness of space, reminding us that some of the things we think of as earthly are in fact universal.

First published in Powder Magazine, issue 25.2, October 1996. Copyright Steve Casimiro 2001. All rights reserved.

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